August Wilson: Triumph of a Common Man.

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On check-in at my hotel in downtown Pittsburgh, I asked if the August Wilson Center (AWC) was somewhere in the neighborhood.

That was an easy question: it was three short blocks away. I walked there, and found the back side of it was visible from my 15th floor room (the orange traffic signs are alongside AWC in the photo – click to enlarge).

August Wilson Center from Omni William Penn, Pittsburgh PA, March 25, 2011

August Wilson?

If you don’t know who he is, note the Center website link above. There is plenty of information. He is one of America’s most noted playwrights, one of the very few winners of two Pulitzer Prizes for his plays; the only African-American playwright ever to have two of his plays performed simultaneously on Broadway.

I met him when he was, literally, a “nobody”, like me….

Portrait of August Wilson at August Wilson Center, Pittsburgh.

Best as I can figure, it was sometime in 1979-82 time period when I met him, briefly, when he was a part-time cook at Little Brothers in Minneapolis MN. I was a sometime volunteer there, and August was the cook. Laura, my friend who introduced me to Little Brothers and got to know August better than I, says he was an outstanding cook, and I’ll take her word for that. My specialty is eating! She spent more time than I at Little Brothers; I was more part of the Catholic Charities circle in those years.

But I did meet August.

Later, I saw eight of the ten plays in his Pittsburgh Cycle – the plays that led to his fame. All of these were produced locally at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre. Gradually, I came to know that the playwright August Wilson was the same August Wilson who I’d met as a cook at Little Brothers some years earlier.

In April, 1998, my daughter and I visited Pittsburgh and were privileged to be given a tour of Augusts Hill District by his older sister, Freda, including going into the tiny home in which they grew up. (In the photo it is the last building on the right, and it is now a historic site in Pittsburgh at 1727 Bedford Ave. Its backyard was the setting, August said, for his play “Seven Guitars”. Note the skyline of downtown Pittsburgh in the background. Indeed, the Hill District is on a hill overlooking downtown.

August Wilson Boyhood home, 1727 Bedford, Pittsburgh PA, April, 1998

Freda remembers her younger brother as always being serious. It was not an easy road for he, his siblings or any persons of color in his growing up years. He wrote a paper in school, and it was so good he was accused of plagiarizing it, and dropped out. No one seemed much interested in his re-enrolling. Ultimately, he received an honorary high school diploma from one of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Libraries, which is where he delved deeply into history, particularly African-American. He wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

My friend, Laura, remembers August as very modest and humble. When he won his first Pulitzer (1987), Laura recalls him as being excited to be able to take pictures of the famous people he would see there, not much aware of his own fame…that, in fact, he was now famous, too.

At the conference I attended in Pittsburgh, I invited August’s sister to speak to the 200 retired National Education Association educators in attendance, and publicize the new Guidebook (it is excellent) which has been published about August Wilson’s Pittsburgh. Here is the flier she distributed: August Wilson guide001. Her picture is below:

Freda Ellis, Pittsburgh, March 27, 2011

As for me, I’m working to learn more about how Little Brothers in Minneapolis assisted in August Wilson’s career development, and to help get Little Brothers recognized as well. As best I know, he completed at least one of his plays while there, and refined one or more of his “Pittsburgh Cycle” in his two or three years there. Yet Little Brothers merits hardly a sentence in any descriptor of August Wilson. Minneapolis’ Little Brothers is a very important part of his ‘roots’.

We all have our heroes and sheroes: August Wilson, and Freda, too, are among mine. I’m so happy we crossed paths….